Is it possible that the earnest, soft-spoken Ashton Kutcher sitting before me on the chocolate-brown Ultrasuede sofa could really be the same actor who became famous for the kinds of roles that required him to shove pills into an owl’s anus?

True, he may look like the gangly, six-foot-three-inch rascal who, with Punk’d, bestowed to the world footage of Salma Hayek being accused of clogging a restaurant toilet with a gigantic turd. His hair (shaggy, partially obscuring his ears) and few days of whisker growth (spotty, uneven) bolster that adolescent vibe. But there’s a studied maturity about this guy in the buffed Ferragamo slip-ons, sitting in the spacious Hollywood office of his production company, Katalyst Films. His French-blue shirt hangs untucked over a pair of loose-legged jeans, but only the top button is open—a signature of modesty in this town. On the coffee table, where the Perfect 10s ought to be, there is a fussily stacked pile of Wallpapers. He offers an earnest discourse about an as-yet-untitled pilot he has coproduced for Fox, which will employ Punk’d-like tactics not for pure anarchic fun but rather to scare at-risk teenagers into taking a responsible path. “Why is a kid throwing piercings all over his face?” he wonders, sounding very Oprah-expert-like. “Because it’s your mask. It’s your armor. Why are you putting on armor? Because you don’t feel safe with what’s inside you.”

When his wife rings his cell phone, just to share an early-afternoon “I love you,” it’s cause for a family-values homily. “When your wife calls, you have to take it, no matter what you’re doing,” he explains. So which Ashton Kutcher—the lovable old spaz or the new circumspect family guy—wore the heavier suit of armor?

And then, just when you recognize that disconsolate feeling you have when your college bong-hit buddy fishes around in his wallet for pictures of his kids, a new topic comes up: the night he first laid eyes on his wife. Suddenly, the Ashton Kutcher of yore takes over. He jumps up, Cruise-like, onto the couch and starts pumping his fist in the air, which is the only way he can adequately conjure up the state of being Ashton Kutcher out in a club just before he crossed paths with Demi Moore.

At that moment, three years ago, Kutcher had established himself as a breakout cast member of That ’70s Show. Punk’d was MTV’s biggest program. He was taking The Butterfly Effect to Sundance. He was about to get a Rolling Stone cover. His new friend Puffy claimed to be reconstituting the Rat Pack; Kutcher would play Dino to Puffy’s Frank. And he and his girlfriend Brittany Murphy were history. So, after three years of keeping his nose clean in steady relationships, he had some shit to work out of his system.